Taken from betterPropaganda (July, 2004)
Michael Franti Interview
by Terbo Ted
Musician and activist Michael Franti has been putting out conscious music with a message since the 1980s, constantly reinventing himself while pushing socially-aware lyrics and booty shaking rhythms. He's got a new album out, in which he's now kicking back for a brief moment- barefeet up in the air- strumming an acoustic guitar while his band Spearhead is preparing to record a new album. Franti is just back from a trip to the Middle East; we were able to set up a phone interview through his management company and publicist. We patiently waited our turn as Franti had some other interviews scheduled the same day; his mood was polite and relaxed; his responses were thoughtful and carefully worded.
Better Propaganda Editor Terbo Ted talks to Michael Franti
betterPropaganda: I always like to start by asking the artists to define themselves. How would you define Michael Franti?
Michael Franti: Oh... just chillin', you know. All the strengths and weaknesses, all the hopes and fears of anybody else.
bP: I've never gotten an answer like that before. Sometimes people will do their little soundbite bio.
bP: But you're not going there. Um, so you've got a new album out, Songs From The Front Porch: An Acoustic Collection. And I've noticed that it's already charting at CMJ. Nice one.
MF: Oh cool.
bP: Can you talk about what it took to re-contexturalize yourself as a folk singer guy with an acoustic guitar?
MF: Well, that's actually how I write all of my songs. Then I bring them to the band and say, "Hey, look, let's put this into a band form." And so when I was making the last album, I was listening to a lot of the songs in their acoustic versions and I said, "You know, this sounds pretty good. Let's just make a whole album like this." So we went back through each of our albums and selected a couple of songs and put them on there. And I didn't do it to try to, you know, start a new career as a folk singer or anything. I just did it because I thought it was an interesting perspective on the work. And then we went back in the studio and finished making Everyone Deserves Music. So we actually finished Songs From The Front Porch before we finished the last album.
bP: Oh, I didn't realize that.
bP: You worked with Mark Pistel on some of those recordings. He's a pretty good studio guy. He's been working with Von Iva, who are popular around here. And also Tino Corp. What's it like working with him?
MF: Well, Mark is a classic studio stoner geek... (laughter) ...and he spends all day and all night in the studio working on sounds, updating his gear, and just getting stoned and making lots of weird music into something people can understand more easily. I hadn't worked with him since the Disposable Heroes project, ...well, actually we worked with him on the last two albums. It was a really great reunion. Now he's working on a dub project where he's doing a bunch of dub record tracks that are just instrumentals and I'm going to put lyrics on some of them.
bP: It's interesting, most people wouldn't realize that you two have real close industrial roots, because he was with Consolidated at the same time you were with The Beatnigs.
MF: Yeah, and even before that he was in a band called Until December and we shared a studio space together with The Beatnigs and then when he started Consolidated, The Beatnigs broke up and we started doing the Disposable Heroes first album in his bedroom.
bP: So I remember seeing The Beatnigs at the iBeam on Haight Street, way back. When you look back at that era what do you think of the body of work that you guys did at that time?
MF: I think it was really, in some ways, ahead of its time. We were doing this industrial style of music before it became a popular thing. Some of the beats I hear today, um, like The Neptunes are doing, I'm like "Oh man, that's a Beatnigs sound." You know? And at that time- music, especially in San Francisco, as a whole- was a lot more wide open. There were more opportunities for people to do things that aren't there today. And one of the reasons is because there were less bands. Today in San Francisco, I have a studio in Secret Studios, and there are over 400 bands that rehearse just in that one complex. So I'm imagining there are something like 800 bands in San Francisco, and they're all trying to get gigs at the same 10 or 15 clubs.
bP: There's less venues than there were back then.
bP: Okay, I'm going to switch gears here a bit. You were just in the Middle East getting a first hand view of what it's like over there and from here, in San Francisco, it just looks seriously fucked up over there. What did you see?
MF: Well, I wouldn't disagree with you. It is seriously fucked up over there. When watching on TV, you just get one frame of one building and maybe a bunch of people yelling in front of the building, waving flags and shooting. But when you get there and look around, you see that almost every other building is blown up and there's people going on about their daily lives amongst this wreckage. And it's just impossible to drive in Baghdad because so many buildings and roads have been bombed and what roads haven't been bombed have been taken over by the US forces and they say only their vehicles can go on these roads. Everyone has a gun. There's four and a half million people in Baghdad and they're all allowed to have one gun in their home. So people openly carry guns in the streets and every night about 3 or 4 o'clock, people just go inside their homes because, uh, they don't feel safe.
bP: I've heard some reports of over in Baghdad about some thrill seeker types and just strange random anarchists hanging out over there. Did you run into any of them while you were over there?
MF: I didn't run into any of them, and I imagine that there would be some small element of that, but I can't imagine that you could stay there for a long time without some kind of purpose, you know. The only people that we met while we were there were either relief workers or journalists.
bP: Did you talk to any troops at all?
MF: Yeah, I talked to a lot of troops.
bP: How are they doing?
MF: Well, they're really on their heels. They're having a hard time, you know? They fear for their safety everyday and are really questioning the motives and why they're there. I sang one night for about 40 off-duty troops in a bar. So, I walked into the bar and there were like 40 guys with an M-16 in one hand and a beer in the other... (laughter).
MF: And here I come with my wooden folk guitar and sing some songs, you know? I sang "Bomb The World", which says "We can bomb the world to pieces / But we can't bomb it into peace". And afterwards, every eye was focused on me, you know? And I could see that some really heard what I had to say, while two or three were looking at me a bit hostile. So I went around and gave everyone in the room a hug. Some of them said they believed in the war, believed in what they were doing, believed it was a good thing and would continue to fight the best they could. But about half the guys said they wished we would have gone to the UN first before coming over here and that when they came over, they believed in it, but now they don't. And the rest of them were like "Fuck this fucking war. I can't wait to get the fuck outta here. Fuck George Bush."
bP: That must be real tough, you know? Because you've both got friends who are veterans and you don't want to see people suffer and whether they're going to be future friends or not, it must be hard.
MF: Yeah, every single soldier I spoke to said they wanted to go home. There wasn't one who said, "yeah, I like it here."
bP: So in your mind, "Supporting The Troops", means bringing them home as soon as possible.
MF: Yeah, yeah, and I think there has to be a plan for getting out of Iraq. You know, the plan can't just be to keep Iraq under occupation, exploiting the oil, and exploiting the rebuilding of the nation.
bP: Isn't that the plan, though?
MF: That is the plan. Yeah. Yeah. The Iraqis are happy that Saddam is gone and they believe Bush when he said this is Operation Iraqi Freedom. And they honestly believe that that was what it was all about. But now that they're under occupation, they see the corporations coming in and doing what they're doing and they see that Iraqi businesses aren't allowed to rebuild. They feel like they're being shit upon. Americans have this kind of attitude that the Iraqis are these poor people who've been blown up and have been suffering under Saddam and they just can't rebuild the nation. But most of what America doesn't know is that after the first Gulf War, they rebuilt their whole nation under sanctions from America. So they were getting no help from anyone and they were still able to rebuild their nation.
bP: They had some very impressive architecture going from now all the way back, I mean, those people know how to live.
MF: Oh, definitely. And Iraq is not really like a Third World, illiterate, impoverished nation. Iraq is a very highly literate society and they are very educated. Compared with the rest of the Middle East, it's a very high standard of living, even under Saddam. And the people have high expectations for their nation there.
bP: Okay, I'd like to move on. At some point, current president George W. Bush will be former president George W. Bush. How would you describe what it was like living under his administration to future generations?
MF: Oh man. I would say that it was um... (long pause) the most fearful time to speak out we've ever experienced in American history.
bP: You were one of the people who was speaking out all along. I remember not too long ago you were with Spearhead at the Hollywood Bowl just making a bunch of opened up declarations about your own opinion, which really we haven't seen a lot of. But you were doing that.
MF: Yeah, and I got a lot of heat. I got lots of heat from it. But um, I think it's really important for us and future generations to realize just how close that we've come with the Patriot Act and just the overall nationalistic fervor. You know, people have said that if your speaking out against the president then your unpatriotic. That's bullshit.
bP: Right. Are you going to endorse anyone for the November presidential election?
MF: I've never endorsed anyone, but what I would endorse is the impeachment and prosecution of George Bush when he's out of office. Or if he gets re-elected, when he's in office. I think that the lies that he's offered us after September 11, creating great fear and sadness for justification for sending troops over to kill is criminal. And he should be prosecuted in a court in America and then he should be prosecuted in an international court in the Hague alongside Milosovic and everybody else who's killed tens of thousands of people.
bP: Do you think at some point the American public will realize that it's way more dangerous to just get in you car and drive, risking your life, and that's it's way more dangerous than any sort of terrorist attack, regardless of what Tom Ridge says?
MF: I think so. I think that we're going to look back on this time period in the same way that we look back on McCarthyism.
MF: This whole red, orange, yellow alerts and all this fear that we're living under. But I also feel that unless we solve the crisis that's taking place in Israel and Palestine that we're going to see a lot more bombings, a lot more car bombings, a lot more suicide attacks, until we get to a point where people can look on it and realize that, um, we were living in a time where we were being lied to.
bP: In San Francisco here, both Mayor Gavin Newsom and the challenger he won against, Matt Gonzalez, are about your exact age. As you get older do you see any sort of legitimate political role for yourself besides your activist work as a musician?
MF: I want to run for court jester. (laughter)
bP: Court jester?
MF: I would love to sit in Gavin Newsom's office with a clown nose on and just make fun of him.
bP: (laughter) That sounds like a good photo op. You should do that. Did you see that Midnight Oil frontman, Peter Garett is now Australian labor party candidate for a seat in South Wales?
MF: Yeah. He's been a friend of mine over the years and when they retired last December, I called him on the phone and I asked him what he was going to do. He was very guarded about whether he was going to go into politics, which to me was a sign that he was definitely going to do it. (laughter all around) So yeah, I'm really glad to see that he's doing it because he's someone that speaks to youth and he's someone who has always been- not only a vocal advocate for change, but- somebody who was able to find the really good words to help people understand why this change should occur.
bP: One thing I've always noticed about your music, whether it was your industrial band, your hip hop group, your r&b/soul band, and even your current folk album, was that your music always seems to have an uplifting message to it. Is that the real constant that's there in all your work? Do you see that?
MF: Yeah, I always want the music to be fun, you know? To be something you can dance to or to be something we can celebrate our humanity through. Sometimes that means it's also angry or sometimes that means that we stop and cry or look to the person next to us and say thank you for being in my life. But I think that if you're going to talk about social issues then you have to make the music something we can socialize to.
bP: Yeah. Are musicians, in a way, like politicians? I mean, do you see a connection between celebrity and control over media attention?
MF: Well, we're way cooler and we make much less money.
bP: (laughter) All right, can you tell us about your performance with Ziggy Marley inTelluride?
MF: Yeah, we played in Telluride for two days and in between the days was the anniversary of the war that's happening right now. So we performed together in the town square there at an event that was protesting the war and at the same time commemorating the loss of life that has occurred there. So Ziggy and I sang "Redemption Song" together and we sang a couple of my tunes together. It was really great to see Ziggy out there because Ziggy's pretty guarded in terms of his, you know, public presence. He has so much pressure on him being the son of his dad that it's really hard for him to be out there publicly and he came out there and was really excited to be raising his voice against the war. It was a good day.
bP: So to wrap it up on here, what are you going to be doing for the rest of the year? What are your plans?
MF: We're editing a film that we shot in Iraq, Palestine, and Israel.
bP: What's that going to be called?
MF: We don't have a title for it yet. If it turns out great, then we'll enter it in some film festivals, and if it's just something we think our fans will be interested in, then we'll just post it on our website. We're also working on a new album in the fall and in the winter and I'm going to Venezuela to do this international human rights forum in December. Next year we're going to take a trip to Africa to go to South Africa, Sudan, Somalia, and West Africa.
bP: All right, great. Keep up the good work, man.
MF: Thanks a lot.